This Etrog Packs a Punch
By Susan Tomchin
It all began with a lone etrog.
To Marni Witkin of Los Angeles, it seemed such a shame that this etrog, used so lovingly during Sukkot, would become passé once the holiday ended.
So she began to experiment for fun in her kitchen, using that sole etrog as the basis of a moderately sweet, fruity, fragrant —yet powerful –liqueur that her family and guests loved.
Friends began giving her their etrogs after Sukkot and her batches of liqueur grew. “I became known in our community for my liqueur and a local store even wanted to sell it,” Marni says. Her husband, Howard, who heads a life insurance agency, recognized that they had a potential start-up business. Thus was born the couple’s company, Sukkah Hill Spirits. Before long, they had their own distilled spirits plant and Marni had translated her recipe for a family-sized batch of liqueur into one that could make a commercial quantity. They began to get their fruit in hundreds-of-pound shipments rather than individually. Kosher certification, gold and silver medals in international spirits competitions and a growing reputation as a leading maker of artisanal liqueur soon followed.
|Marni and Howard Witkin
Sukkah Hill uses fruit from John Kirkpatrick, a third generation family farmer based in California’s San Joaquin Valley, who is the sole commercial etrog grower in the U.S. Less than 10 percent of the farm’s etrog crop has the shape and level of perfection necessary for ritual purposes, but now, says Howard Witkin, “Sukkah Hill is becoming the main user for the remainder of the crop.” Most spirits are made from grain alcohol, but not Sukkah Hill. “We use the purest natural ingredients,” says Marni. The former elementary school teacher and mother of four, who eschews processed foods and makes all her family’s baked goods from scratch, wouldn’t have it any other way. “We use pure cane sugar spirits with no wheat, no gluten, no artificial colors, and no stabilizers,” she says. This means that the etrog liqueur as well as the company’s other product, Besamin Aromatic Spice Liqueur, redolent of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, are also kosher for Passover.
The etrog liqueur is made from a blend of different varieties of etrogs and each barrel has its own unique characteristics. Marni, who her husband has dubbed, “taste mistress,” samples every barrel and makes any necessary adjustments to the flavor.
“The etrog defies description,” says Marni, “You have to taste it and smell it. It has its own unique flavor profile. Our plant smells wonderful and I leave there with the scent clinging to my clothing. In Jewish tradition, the smell of the etrog is said to be like that of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). I get it now!” she says.
Etrog liqueur is very different from limoncello, the Italian lemon liqueur with which many are familiar. “Limoncello is generally around 20-30 proof, and our liqueur is 76 proof, almost as strong as vodka or whiskey,” says Howard. That makes the liqueur great as a mixer or base for a cocktail. The company website features recipes for an Etrog Clementine; Etrog Mojito; Etrog Ricky; Etrog Champagne Cocktail; and other libations.
Marni says that it also tastes wonderful over Trader Joe’s mango sorbet or vanilla ice cream and can also be used in baking and cooking. She has added it to honey cake and to a marinade for grilled trout.
Now beginning its second year, Sukkah Hill’s reputation and production is growing. The company produced 6,000 bottles this past year and hopes to nearly double that output in the year ahead.
Currently available in stores in California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Nevada, distribution agreements are in the works in Maryland, Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. Check the company website to find out about availability in your area.
Read JW’s article about the symbolism of the etrog.